LIVERPOOL: Brendan Rodgers guided Liverpool to the brink of the Premier League title when he was in charge at Anfield. Now, on his first return since leaving 4 years ago, the Leicester boss is aiming to slow his former club’s latest championship challenge and demonstrate that his side deserve to be considered top-four contenders.
Rodgers was dismissed by the Merseyside club after a three-year stint as manager little more than a year after his side had fallen agonizingly short in their efforts to beat Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City to top spot in 2014.
Five years on, Jurgen Klopp’s side are once again locked in an intense rivalry with City and will attempt to maintain their perfect start to the league campaign on Saturday.
However, the combination of Leicester’s impressive resurgence under Rodgers and Liverpool’s unconvincing midweek Champions League display against Salzburg means Klopp’s side face a tough task to make it eight wins from eight.
Rodgers returned to the league in February after a trophy-laden spell in Scotland with Celtic, charged with injecting fresh life into a Leicester side that had lost its way under Claude Puel.
The excitement of the thrilling title success in 2016 had faded, with Puel accused of adopting a negative style of play that meant mid-table was the best the club could hope for.
The arrival of Rodgers provided an immediate lift and he has restored belief at the King Power Stadium that the club can establish itself among the leading group of clubs.
He has done that while continuing the process of rebuilding the team — of the title-winning lineup, only goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and striker Jamie Vardy have been regular starters this season.
Having been touted as a contender to finish 6th in the league, the “best of the rest,” before the campaign, the Foxes’ subsequent form has seen them spoken of as a top-four side.
Leicester have lost just once this season and are third in the league on 14 points, nestled behind Liverpool and Manchester City.
But Rodgers is cautious.
“It is still all going to take time. The gap has increased between the top and the rest of the top six, so there is still a big ask to close that,” he said in an interview withthe Telegraph.
“We spent £19 million ($23.5 million) net in the summer and lost our center-half, but it does not stop us wanting to challenge. I am loving it here and the challenge of taking the team up there.”
The manager has blended an exciting crop of young players including England pair Ben Chilwell and James Maddison and midfielders Wilfred Ndidi, Youri Tielemans and Harvey Barnes with older heads such as Schmeichel, Vardy and Jonny Evans.
Marc Albrighton, a survivor of the title-winning team who appeared from the bench in Sunday’s 5-0 defeat of Newcastle United, believes the current group is stronger than the squad 3 years ago.
Klopp is well aware of Leicester’s threat, particularly if the Premier League leaders defend like they did against Salzburg, when they squandered a three-goal lead before recovering to win 4-3.
“I am sure Brendan Rodgers thinks if we protect (defend) like we did tonight then Jamie Vardy will probably run through five times alone on the goalkeeper,” he said after the match in midweek.
Rodgers, for his part, said he was proud to have been given a chance at Anfield, even though it came early in his career.
“At 39 I was able to manage one of the great football institutions,” he said. “I am just so looking forward to going back.”